Monday, October 11, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Dracula (1979)

Frank Langella! Lawrence Olivier! Donald Pleasence! Three men with endless charm in their pockets and the accents to sweep any hot blooded American girl off her feet.

Directed by John Badham and scored by the prolific John Williams (which I may add, never writes a score that sounds similar to any of his others, thank you very much!), Dracula (1979) is Gothic Victorian horror at its best. Seems just like the cover of one of those old novels my mom used to read with the ocean front castle on the hill in the background and a woman in a white dress gazing back longingly at the moonlight....
What the hell is not to like?

Okay, I realize you might be saying, "Oh, she's selling out to the love story!"
In this instance, I am. I'm a well-rounded vampire fan that likes all incarnations of my un-dead buddies (but still prefer they not sparkle) and is actually rather fond of the romanticism that some of the Counts pull off. And it's done here in stellar fashion.

And so the story goes:
The Demeter runs aground near Whitby, England after a treacherous journey over violent seas. Though the sea's torture is nothing compared to what occurs on board prior to it's wreck onto the rocks. Seems something has arisen from its box of Transylvanian soil and viciously killed all the men on board, tearing their throats out.

Meanwhile, the lovely Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is attending to her house guest, Mina (Jan Francis). Inexplicably, the frail and meek Mina is drawn outside into the rain and down to the shore, where she follows a wolf down to an oceanside cave, where it promptly disappears. When she rounds a corner she finds a man, lying face down and obviously in distress. Suddenly a hand reaches out and takes Mina's hand. Da-dum!!
Dracula (Langella) has arrived.

Because Mina is considered a savior, having rescued the count from certain 'death' during the storm, Dracula is invited to dinner (where he never at the Seward house. As the group awaits their guest we realize that in this version of Dracula, Lucy is the one betrothed to Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), and Mina is a Van Helsing - a strange deviation from Stoker's source novel. Similarities include Seward (Pleasence), who is still a doctor attending to the nutsos at the cliffside asylum he runs. Harker has recently acquired a property for Count Dracula, the Carfax Abby, which we have already seen Dracula renovating in his own special way (procuring an eternal servant in Renfield, who is still making a habit of eating bugs.)

When the quartet finally meet Dracula for the first time, he is introduced in such an attention-getting manner - practically floating into the room, draped in his signature black cloak and looking ten times as dapper as his hosts. Uttering his signature line, "Good Evening", it immediately causes the women in the room to all but gasp at his beauty, and the men posturing for recognition and their place on the food chain (couldn't resist). The women can't help but to love him, the men want to cut out his heart and feed it to the family dog. They do maintain composure, at least at first.

By and far, Frank Langella's count is certainly the most handsome, charming, and erotically charged vampire seen on screen, at least up until that point in cinema. He reeks sex, and doesn't barely have to glance at Mina or Lucy to have them under his power. In fact, Mina is overcome and nearly faints.
While Dr. Seward and Lucy's fiance fawn all over her attempting to help, Dracula says he can cure her by simply the power of suggestion. But oh what a suggestion it must have been. He glamours her, unbeknownst to any of the others, and with a flick of the hand she comes about, feeling considerably better. Lucy is quite impressed, and offers a dance to the good-looking stranger. Though he says he can't dance, no one is laughing when he falls into a perfect rhythm, charming the pants off Lucy and royally pissing off fiance Harker in the process.

That night, Dracula comes to Mina's room while Lucy is off messing around with Jonathan. Finally we get to see Drac's true colors (as if we didn't already know). He's a creature of the night and needs blood to survive, which he promptly takes from Mina, leaving her extremely anemic and near death.

When Lucy awakens the next morning (sleeping in the same bed as Mina - which brings me to wonder why on earth a family as privileged as the Sewards obviously are would need to double up. Surely Mina could have her own room!) - Mina is struggling to breathe. Despite their efforts, no one is able to help her and she expires with a long, last breath. So dramatic.

Because he is unable to explain how or why Mina died, Seward calls for Mina's father to come and help determine the cause because he's so baffled. (I kind of figured that maybe he called him since HIS DAUGHTER DIED! But hey, that's just me.) When Van Helsing (Olivier) arrives, it takes him around two seconds to figure out she was bit by a nosferatu. Duh! He heads to Mina's grave to lay garlic all over it and wait for nightfall.

Eventually Van Helsing and Seward break into the coffin and are shocked to see Mina is not there. Van Helsing discovers an underground tunnel which Mina has apparently escaped through. He follows the tunnel until he is faced with the walking dead - his daughter, looking not unlike a Romero zombie movie extra. A struggle ensues, with Seward coming to the rescue in the nick of time, allowing Van Helsing to run a large stake through his ghastly-looking undead daughter.

Meanwhile, Mina's grave is visited by the count just previous to Van Helsing's underground adventure. Van Helsing is quickly leary of Dracula, and warns Lucy to steer clear.
But it's too late for all that. After being summoned to Dracula's castle, she arrives alone to find the entire place illuminated with candles and the count looking all come hither. They sit down to eat (and of course he doesn't) and tell tales of love lost and the meaning of life and death. (He should know!) It all gets very morose until when outside, Dracula gives the 'wolves are the children of the night' speech and Lucy agrees that the nighttime is the right time.
All it takes is the first kiss.

Lucy surrenders herself to him and in a psychedelic trip comparable to a Pink Floyd concert, they make sweet, sweet love and he bites her, effectively making her his for all eternity. Aww, how damn romantic is that?

Back home later, Van Helsing and Harker realize Lucy too has become a lap dog for Satan (thank you From Dusk Till Dawn) and try giving her a blood transfusion, but it doesn't seem to work. All they've done is prolong the inevitable. Soon Lucy will be a vampire, and there is nothing to do but watch.

Or kill the main blood-sucker. Which is what our two heroes attempt to do. They are able to get into Carfax Abby while Dracula is still asleep (daylight!) and when they locate his coffin they are all set to stick him with a bit of wood. However, this isn't some random vamp. This dude is over 500 years old and has a little bit of experience, it seems. He defends himself by turning into a (really cheesy but not as awful as the Hammer ones) bat and heads off looking for Lucy with the intention of them escaping back to Romania.

Somehow, Harker and Van Helsing are able to track them down (thank heavens for GPS!) and board the ship that is to take them back to Romania. They are dismayed to find Lucy and her lover in the same coffin (come on, get with the times!) and when they try to finish him off, the count awakens and struggles with Van Helsing, who takes a stake in the chest that was meant for the count. Just as he is about to expire, Van Helsing throws a cargo hook at Dracula. It gets stuck in his back and Harker is then able to throw some rope over it and hoist the count up through the hold and into the bright sunlight of day. MacGyver would be proud!

Painfully, the count burns to ash as Harker looks on and Lucy's curse is removed.
But there's a little smile on her face as she watches Dracula's cape float away into the noon-day sun. It looks almost like a bat...

Sorry if I spoiled that ending for you, but seriously? All vampire films end the same, so I don't think I was really that cruel, do you?

Yep, it's far-fetched, takes liberties with the original material, and is actually somewhat cheesy at times. But as much as I love the '31 Lugosi and the Christopher Lee Hammer vampires - not to mention my True Blood favorites - Frank Langella's Dracula is stunning, yet still malicious enough to still want to stick a stake in him. A perfect combo.


Will Errickson said...

"...his ghastly-looking undead daughter."

Yes, Mina was *terrifying*. That's what I recall most from seeing this version as a kid.

Mr. Gable said...

Donald Pleasance!? I am there.

Pax Romano said...

I love this version of Dracula.

True Story:

When the film came out, I saw it at a theater with a friend. Seated behind us were two African American women. They were chattering all through the film - but when Dracula seduces Lucy, they fell silent and did not utter a sound until the very end of the scene when one of them sighed, "Girl, he could bite my neck anytime!"

The Film Connoisseur said...

No one can give you crap for being pulled into the love story elements of a Dracula adaptation because Dracula is a love story at heart, and this one is one of the most romantic of all.

Langella steals the show, as the charming Dracula. Some call this version of Dracula "Disco Dracula" because of some of the hair do's and shirts Dracula wears, plus theres that whole scene where Dracula hovers above the bed with all those lazer lights.

All that aside, this is a very creepy version of Dracula, it has tons of atmosphere, lots of fog, and that memorable scene in the caves with the Mina vampire! Awesome!

A great Dracula film, I use to watch this one when I was a kid, Dracula's death stayed in mind for a long time for some reason. It was the only thing I remembered about this movie until I re-watched it as an adult.

Great review!